Ahead of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at Selma, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column for Time declaring that there are a number of leaders in the African-American community who can help bring about change. One of the leaders Abdul-Jabbar highlighted was Brittany Packnett, an educator who has been a key figure and activist in Ferguson during the protests that have occurred in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death last August. Per the Hall of Famer, African-Americans shouldn’t be looking for the next Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead, they should realize that there will be several figures leading the movement for social justice.
The six-time NBA champion wanted to dismiss the notion that blacks in America are without any strong leaders and that they are in need of another MLK. Instead, he pointed out that a community of 43 million Americans cannot look to one leader, but need a number of different and varied voices.
This weekend our nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march known as “Bloody Sunday.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is on our minds, and for many people so is one burning question: Where is today’s Dr. King? I’d argue it’s the wrong question. In the act of canonizing Dr. King, we’re forgotten that no movement is ever advanced by one voice alone. This country wasn’t founded by a single person, but a group of visionaries who didn’t always share the same vision. Dr. King’s voice was lifted by many others — Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis — who may have marched to a different drummer but marched in the same direction.
Bringing about change requires, as Liam Neeson might say, “a very particular set of skills.” Leaders have to notice subtle shifts in the political landscape that threaten the rights and standing of blacks in society. They have to analyze complex information and question even more complex motivations. They have to be socially responsible in not attributing every societal stumble to racism. They have to have a clear and articulate voice in explaining when injustice occurs, and they must have the courage to tell the world — even when the world doesn’t want to hear it. Finally, they must be able to offer practical solutions to specific problems and have the drive and charisma to inspire people to participate in those solutions.
Who are the leaders in the African-American community willing to bring all aspects of injustice to the public’s attention, especially when the public doesn’t want to hear it? The black community has many brave and dedicated leaders, so no simple list will do them all justice. Some leaders operate on a very local level. Even though they help many in need, they will not be recognized as a national leader. The best I can do is mention those who have become a public face and voice for many African-Americans. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the 43 million members of the black community are not a single voice. Like every other ethnic group, they have a broad spectrum of political, religious, and social beliefs. However, they do have a nearly unanimous voice when it comes to believing that there are institutional injustices aimed at them as a group.
Abdul-Jabbar then highlighted what he called an “All-Star roster of Old School warriors and up-and-coming rookies” in regards those he feels are the strongest black leaders today and the ones the African-American community can look towards. Included in his list was Packnett, who he described as a “major organizer of the Ferguson protests.”
Brittany Packnett. It would be enough to be a top official with Teach for America, the non-profit organization that is working to eliminate inequality in education. But Packnett was also a major organizer of the Ferguson protests and has since been selected as a member of the Ferguson Commission, which is charged with investigating racial and economic inequality in the St. Louis area.
The NBA great has used his Time column in recent months to denounce racism and Islamophobia while advocating for greater social justice. He wrote about the NYPD murders in December and pointed out that it was “cynical and selfish” to blame them on the #BlackLivesMatter protests that had taken place in New York City and around the country. Abdul-Jabbar also appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press in January to call out Bill O’Reilly for fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in France.